Writing this blog post is definitely bittersweet. Half of me wants you all to go to Myanmar right now as it’s the most beautiful, friendly and awe-inspiring country I have ever visited. The other half of me wants to secretly keep it to myself in the hope that the lack of tourism never builds up and causes the place to spoil.
The good cop won, so here’s how to do a quick run of Myanmar for the time-conscious traveller….
Most likely this is how you’ll enter the country through the capital’s airport. Whilst Yangon is full of quirks, great people and breathtaking temples; I wouldn’t suggest spending too long there. I was let down by the Burmese cuisine because I was led into a false sense of security from Western/Burmese fusion restaurants. In reality, you can’t see or taste anything but oil and noodles/rice. Don’t worry, it didn’t taint my trip. It’s my only negative!
Make sure you head to The Shewada Pagoda. It’s one of the busiest tourist and local hotspots in the whole of Myanmar but this magical golden kingdom does not disappoint. Surrounded by a sea of Monks and locals who come here to pray and worship. The atmosphere and sheer beauty is knock out.
Whether its your thing or not, we found a great palm reader who enlightened our trip and gave us a spring in our step just outside the Pagoda. Fun way to kill an hour!
Street Markets! They’re everywhere in SE Asia of course, but these local markets are a great way of finding out the local delicacies, conversing (or sign language-ing) with the local people and buying the odd gift. Don’t spend too much here though because you’ll need plenty of space in your backpack for the rest of Myanmar.
I can’t believe I’m saying this – but I also went to the cinema in Yangon. Feeling unwell but not wanting to stay in my hostel the whole time, I escaped to the cinema to watch Hunger Games – it was cheap, air conditioned and transported me back to the UK for a couple of hours.
Where to stay:
I found a great hostel in Yangon called ‘Chen Myae Thar Guest House’ The normal cost for a hostel bed when I was there was $10 USD and this hostel fell in line with the norm. Welcome drink, comfy bed, free breakfast and own bed’s air con unit, this place was a haven for Burma. Aesthetically, you wont be jumping for joy but they make up for that by their fantastic bookings desk and their ability to get you to your next spot.
I wanted to get here as quickly as I’d heard so much about it. The place to get THOSE amazing sunrise-hot-air-balloon-temple snaps. I have a more comprehensive guide on Bagan here.
My first piece of advice would be to stay here as long as you can. There is so much to explore, such a fantastically relaxed and pleasant way of life and the more time you have to get lost, the better.
Hire an E-bike and go exploring. Unlike Angkor Watt, you can visit 10 temples before you’ve even found another tourist. You can climb them right to the top without anyone telling you must get down and you can sit and think your life away whilst watching the sunset. This place is absolute paradise.
We explored the small local villages and came across monasteries, rivers, games of Burmese football and many men wearing their longies (skirts).
Here’s where you could spend your entire travelling budget in a few days. The hand crafted souvenirs are stunning and speaking to the vendor is even better. These people are so kind and warming and they love the tourists more than you could imagine.
I’d suggest hiring an E-bike (with a small motor, safer than a scooter) as opposed to just cycling; the sand can get thick and it can be quite tiring.
Make sure you leave some time to visit the stunning Mount Popa. It’s a temple on top of a small mountain and it literally encompasses what I imagine a Disney Princess would live in.
Where to stay:
Winner Guesthouse won the lucky dip for us. It had AC, en suite bathroom, other travellers and they let us in when we arrived at 4am from the night bus.
The old capital of Myanmar, Mandalay, was actually a bit of a dumping ground. Plenty of rubbish, odd smells and bustling groups of people. Not to mention our train de-railed on the way there leading to an interesting journey! But when you escape the hustle and bustle of the city itself, you will stumble across a large haven of Buddhist monks and ancient tradition.
The U-Bein Bridge at sunset/sunrise is definitely one for the Instagram. Stunning views of the wooden bridge that you can either walk over (it’s over a kilometre!!) or you can hire a local small boat to chauffeur you around. Camera’s at the ready, bonus points if you catch a Monk walking over the bridge at sunset!
Head to the Bargaya Monastery in the A.M and spot over 1500 monks being fed with contributions made from the local people. Truly calming and interesting experience – it feels almost like a ceremony.
Where to stay:
Dreamland guesthouse had comfortable beds, a music room filled with instruments waiting to be played, really knowledgable staff, air conditioning and onward travel.
KALAW – INLE LAKE
If you’re healthy enough and have an adventurous spirit then the best way to get to the Inle Lake is definitely to trek. It’s an easy bus from Mandalay – Kalaw, where you can begin your trek in the mountain village. 60-70km of walking over mountains, through villages, monasteries, waterfalls and farmland. You can do a longer trek if you ask your guide and organise it beforehand.
I’d suggest asking for the ‘adventure route’ meaning you will climb through river passages and scale small walls. Although its tiring on the legs, the beauty of Myanmar is unforgettable. It’s kind of fun to break up all the straight trekking with a bit of adventure.
Interact with the locals in the villages, although they will probably act shy, they will be so happy to see you!
This trek reminded me a lot of Sapa in Northern Vietnam.
Where to stay:
The best place to stay overnight before trekking in Kalaw is the Golden Lily guesthouse. Although the accommodation is not revolutionary, you trek straight from here AND you get free breakfast. The hikes are cheap and worth the money, great for a backpacker shoestring budget – plus all meals on the road are included!
What a place to explore! You can hire a bicycle and explore the surrounding farm land. Or venture out on a boat with a local. You can view sunrises, eat at swanky restaurants and explore the floating market. There’s so much to consume your time here, but just beware because it’s not cheap. You can still find cheaper eats, but just make sure you’re being savvy, because amongst all the fantastic craft and souvenirs, it wont be long until you’re bankrupt!
If you decided to trek there, you’ll probably be EXHAUSTED when you arrive at the lake, so make sure you leave a night or day to recover. You’ll thank yourself when the time comes!
The floating markets are un-missable. Although some people may say they’re just a tourist trap, I think the crafts that you can see are really unique. The shops encompass a lot of Burmese culture!
If you find yourself with spare time, exploring the rice fields is a great way to mix with the locals and see them hard at work.
If you find yourself feeling flush and having a spare few dollars in your day, make sure to check out The French Touch restaurant in Nyaung Shwe. The food is remarkable and the owners are even better! It is pricey for a backpacker budget though.
Where to stay:
If you decide to do the trekking, your guide will probably point you in the direction of a cheap hotel. There are no ‘hostels’ so to speak, so you will have to make do with a lower priced hotel. This will only cost you a bit more if you don’t have any one to bunk up with, otherwise it’ll work out the same price as the hostel beds.
Back to Yangon for your final day before flying out. You will hopefully have left feeling like Myanmar is one of the most special, untouched and truly beautiful places you have ever been. Sshh, don’t tell anyone! We don’t want to spoil the secret.
TOP TIPS FOR MYANMAR
- Take crisp American Dollars (the bigger the better) and get them changed at a bank in Yangon. The money exchange offices tend to rip you off a little bit.
- Change all your money back into USD before you leave the country as NOWHERE will exchange them in SE Asia.
- Be kind to the locals – flash them a smile and you’ll get a smile back!
- Watch out for the trains, I’m sure a lot of them arrive safely – but ours de-railed and we were stuck for AGES (although no one was injured).
- Tourism is building up quickly, expect crowds in some places.